Afghanistan – Sangin is allowing progress in rest of Helmand

Senior British officers who were commanding troops in Afghanistan last winter have spoken of the progress made in key areas of Helmand province despite the difficulties of tackling the insurgency in the Sangin area. Report by Sharon Kean.

Soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles engage with an Afghan local during a patrol in Sangin
Source: Sergeant Keith Cotton RLC, Ministry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The Commanding Officers also spoke about the lack of trust of Afghan people in their local security forces, but added that significant progress was made during their six months in theatre in developing the Afghan security forces which has been helped by the opening of the new police training facility in Helmand province.

The officers were addressing the media at a briefing session in Pirbright yesterday.

Brigadier James Cowan, who led 11 Light Brigade through six tough months from October last year, spoke of a lack of trust in homegrown security forces, in particular the police. He said:

„Often captured Taliban would mention during interviews the police as a principal reason for having joined the insurgency in the first place.“

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, the officer in charge of troops in the Sangin area of Helmand province, said he had heard ‚anecdotal evidence of bad behaviour‘ among local police, adding:

„They were most often cited by people in shuras as the reason why there was a problem or why people joined the Taliban. I never personally witnessed anything I would say was bad policing but there was a body of anecdotal chat around the bazaar about how rotten these people were.“

An Afghan National Police graduation ceremony at the Interim Helmand Police Training Centre in Lashkar Gah
Source: Pfc Luke Rollins, Ministry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

However, Taliban propaganda may have been to blame for much of the distrust, he said:

„We’ve heard reports that the Taliban were wearing police uniforms and mounting checkpoints, taking people’s phones and money off them. If you’re a little farmer in a remote village, then if he tells you he’s a policeman you’re going to believe him.“

Brigadier Cowan said the situation had improved over 11 Light Brigade’s six-month deployment, with the police now receiving better training at the Helmand Police Training College, where between 100 and 120 recruits are graduating every six weeks:

„We began to see some very reliable, very good policemen that were not only impressing us but also impressing the local people,“ he said.

„It will take time to get to the levels that we want. It is our aim to get to 600 every eight weeks and we’ve put a lot of time and effort into making sure that the right number of instructors and infrastructure is present to make it work.“

Lt Col Kitson’s 1,400-strong 3rd Battalion The Rifles Battle Group spent six months in Sangin, the most ‚difficult‘ area where British troops operate in Helmand province. The Battle Group lost 30 men and had more than 100 injured.

Newly-trained Afghan National Police officers at a medal-giving ceremony
Source: Cpl Al Crowe RAF, Ministry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The Royal Marines of 40 Commando are currently operating in Sangin.

Lt Col Kitson said the terrain and an ‚industry of IED-laying‘ in Sangin were factors that made the remote area hard to operate in:

„It’s in the middle of nowhere, further away from government control, meaning people were at the mercy of drugs barons,“ he said.

A change in military tactics had helped, he said, with the Battle Group being broken down into smaller units, allowing the British troops to live nearer the local people they were protecting:

„We needed to be in among the people, not commuting into our engagement with them,“ he said, „so that we didn’t just disappear off and in our wake came the Taliban to cut off their ears and noses and give them a hard time for talking to us.“

The new arrangement resulted in more patrol bases among the people and more patrols around local areas surrounding the district centre and bazaar. Lt Col Kitson added:

„These were a real thorn in the Taliban’s side. They were permanently shooting them up. That’s not much fun for the locals, but they were more grateful that the illegal checkpoints had gone on the route to and from the bazaar.“

A member of the UK Combat Camera Team shows a group of Afghan children his video camera
Source: Staff Sergeant Mark Jones, Ministry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The number of patrols by the Battle Group increased from eight to ten a day to almost 50 a day. And, whereas during the previous deployment there were just 800 patrols in six months, Lt Col Kitson’s men were averaging 1,000 a month with the new configuration, living and working with the local security forces, fighting what he described as ‚a different kind of fight‘.

Progress in Sangin was also helped by the appointment of a new District Governor, Mohammad Sherrif. The number of stalls in the bazaar doubled from 500 to 1,000, there are now nearly 50 schools, and government-run health clinics are treating more than 100 people a day. Brigadier Cowan said:

„Whilst there were casualties, there began to be a sense of the futility of the struggle among the Sangin Taliban. There was a sense towards the end of the tour that while it was hard for us it was just as hard for them. Sangin has allowed progress to take root in the rest of Helmand.“

Despite the heavy casualties, Brigadier Cowan said the focus was on the local people rather than fighting, using Operation MOSHTARAK as an example of how he tried to minimise the use of force, by persuading insurgents not to fight.

An Afghan National Army-led patrol takes place in an area of Nad ‚Ali previously under Taliban control
Source: Staff Sergeant Mark Jones, Ministry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

He described a ‚war by mobile telephone‘ where his commanders would work with district governors to conduct ‚precision influence operations‘, calling them to ‚convince them of the inevitability of their own defeat‘.

Lieutenant Colonel Roly Walker was in charge of the Battle Group based in the Nad ‚Ali area, some 70km south of Sangin.

During the six-month tour his men were involved in more than 1,300 firefights, found more than 500 IEDs (62 of which detonated, mostly on vehicles) and built 20 new checkpoints.

Fifteen soldiers died and 69 were wounded, and just under a hundred went back to the UK with non-battle injuries. He said a ‚conservative‘ estimate of insurgents killed would be ’north of 600′:

„This gives you a sense of the scale of the effort that the soldiers went through,“ he said. „Our job was to be with the people, if we had to fight to be with the people then so be it.“

Press release
Ministry of Defence, UK